The crowds fled in mass panic up and down the narrow cobbled streets of Taxco. Terror gripped their faces and adults grabbed children before rushing them in to any hidden space which offered even the semblance of safety, because what followed the screams of ‘run’ came the most dreaded word in contemporary Mexico,
Drug traffickers had infiltrated the annual Easter parade in the small, colonial mountain town of Taxco. Now the attention of the people lining the streets to witness the religious devotees file through the town was gripped by the true rulers of Mexico – drug traffickers.
“Narcos!” they yelled and the word rippled through the town.
“Disparos,” muttered others.
Gun shots had been heard.
My heart instantly leapt a beat and I was swept along in the mass hysteria. I ran up the street towards the main square before colliding with people rushing away from the main square. I discarded the bag of snacks I had prepared for the anticipated night-long Semana Santa parade and I followed a large group of petrified locals running…somewhere.
I can’t get caught.
What will they do to me?
The we stopped.
Startled onlookers were now fleeing towards us, scanning the street for danger and safety. At the same time, religious devotees plodded up the streets praying and whipping themselves or carrying life-sized crucifixes. The blood streaming down the backs of the men shouldering heavy bundles of thorny reeds served as an omen to the people now attempting to outrun the most dreaded force in Mexico.
The macabre imagery incited even more panic in the minds of the crowd and they sought refuge wherever they could find it.
I knew I had to stop running and that I was too far from my hotel to make it back to safety, and simultaneously wondered why I thought my hotel room was safe. Narcos baulked at nothing to win their turf wars and protect their profits.
I then noticed people ducking into buildings, any building they could reach, before closing the door rapidly behind them and imploring their children to hush and avoid detection. No one wanted to become another statistic.
A slither of light shone on the darkened street and I saw a door left ajar for a fraction of a second. I dashed towards it just before it was closed and ducked into a dimly lit room occupied by numerous families and frightened locals.
Murmurs and whispers surrounded me and the one word which surfaced in every hushed utterance was ‘narcos’. A tense conversation then began between two people disagreeing over whether to leave the light on or to plunge us into total darkness. In the dim light I detected white powder on the floor and some of the benches, and I was immediately reminded of the white powder which fuels the drug wars and the narco terrorism throughout Mexico. Except this was a different white powder. I was in a bakery.
The discussion then turned to whether anyone else should be offered refuge in the tiny room. If there were a dozen people packed into the bakery, it was definitely a baker’s dozen.
The overcrowding heightened the tension. A sentry of sorts peered through the faded glass window onto the streets and attempted to update us on the situation. He struggled to distinguish between the hectic scene before him, which was still nothing more than a blur of screams, shouts and rapid footsteps.
The only discernible figures, which even the rest of us could make out from our hiding spot further into the bakery, were the slow-moving shapes. The devotees lugging the crosses and flagellating themselves in a public display of piety, splitting apart their blood-stained skin in acts of self harm.
Cofradias wore long cone-shaped hoods which have been appropriated by the KKK. Barefooted women bent double with horse hair clothing and barbed-wire-like belts pricking their skin.
Shirtless, faceless men cradling crosses ambling through the streets with their feet chained to the rest of the gang had no hope of outrunning ruthless and nimble drug traffickers. Perhaps this is why they didn’t bother, why they continued their holy pilgrimage, perhaps in the surety that a death at the hands of evil during a holy display of devotion would ensure entry into heaven. Perhaps this was the ultimate proof of their faith.
And to think, only moments before, the most incongruous sight on that evening in Taxco was the young women in short skirts tottering past the devotees in high heels ‘al rumbo a la fiesta’.
The participants clearly believed their acts of devotion would please the lord and persuade him to save them from the insidious and indiscriminate crimes of the ‘narcos’, because they trudged on wards through the streets shielded only by their prayers.
Did they know that Narcos would administer pain far worse than anything the devotees could inflict upon themselves – and send them to meet their maker much sooner.
Chaos reigned outside the bakery until one of its prisoners suggested we leave. He claimed we were no safer in here than on the streets, and that being crammed in like sardines made us an easier target. This sparked another tense, hushed discussion but noone moved. Children became visibly more anxious and petrified parents did their best to calm the young ones, while all of us wondered what kind of carnage had been perpetrated on the streets.
A young man forced his way into the bakery. A frenzied look covered his face and most of us instinctively raised our hands.
Take our money, take our watches, phones, whatever you need, but just leave us unharmed. Leave us alive.
“Esta bien, no soy narco,” he reassured us, and we lowered our hands.
We were comforted by his clarification that he was not a narco, but the children were startled anew by the mention of the word and parents blasted the young man for his insensitivity. Everyone was on edge.
I don’t know how long we sheltered in the bakery, but at some point the mood changed. Screams and shouts became conversations outside. Footsteps sounded measured and the sound of prayer filled the air once again.
Hesitantly, one of our party squeezed the door open and surveyed the scene. It was safe. The streets had returned to normal and we filed out of the bakery slowly, wishing each other good luck and good night.
I saw the parade continuing. The mood had changed but the piety remained.
I wandered up towards my hotel and asked a passer by what had happened. Where were the narcos, who had been shot, where were the dead bodies?
“Fue una chispa en las cables de luz,” he explained.
There were no narcos, no shots fired and no dead bodies.
An electrical surge had caused sparks to fly from an overhead electrical cable. Nothing more.
Image: Luis Villasmil